by Stephen Bryen
While now is the time for mourning in Pittsburgh, and a difficult time for the survivors and the community, the case of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting is far from closed, nor should it be.
Yes we know who the shooter is, Robert Bowers, and that he was wounded by the police and SWAT teams after they themselves sustained four injuries, with one of SWAT team member in very bad condition in a local hospital. And we know that the shooter was a Nazi or neo-Nazi (take your pick), an anti-Semite, and anti-migrant. He was also anti-Trump, although you would never know it from many of the comments coming these days from Pittsburgh and other tin-headed politicians.
There are still issues that are unresolved.
One of them is whether or not the shooter was acting alone. So far at least he is being portrayed as a loner, but that is not exactly right since he was proclaiming his views on social media and appeared to have like-minded people talking to him, sharing their hatred. Were any of them involved in the shooting? His strange post, “I am going in” is not the language of a loner.
The shooter also appeared to know his way around the Tree of Life synagogue. From overhead photos, it is a big structure and includes a main building and at least two connected structures. He seemed to know to go downstairs “to the basement” where one of three congregations in the building was holding prayer services. There he killed at least three people. He also seemed to know to retreat to the third floor “to hide” as it has been reported, instead of escaping from one of the exits.
Speaking of the exits, members of the three congregations did not seem to have used them, even though the exit doors had been improved so they could offer emergency exit in such a crisis. We don’t know why. Were they functional or were they blocked? A former past president of the Congregation told the press that the exit doors had been in poor repair, but they had been fixed before the shooting occurred.
In the case of the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette shooting, the shooter had blocked the back exit before entering through the main glass entrance door, firing his AR-15 rifle (the same as used in Pittsburgh, along with two Glock handguns). Did the shooter have accomplices? While in such situations there is always considerable chaos and uncertainty, it seems at least open to investigation what happened with the exits and whether others were helping the shooter.
Maybe some of this will come out when the police interrogate the shooter, who has now been charged with multiple capital crimes.
There are also questions for the synagogue and its leadership and management. A reading of the website of Tree of Life, especially a message from the new President suggests there has been some heavy staff changes recently including the departure of the Executive Director before the recent shooting. In July Sam Schachner, the new synagogue President wrote: “ I write you at a time of tremendous ongoing change for our synagogue. We have recently witnessed the departures of our esteemed former executive director Mr. Joel Goldstein, our hard working former controller Mrs. Janet Mernagh, and a long term member of our maintenance staff, David Kurban. A year after our change in Rabbinical leadership and two months after our tremendous long term president Michael Eisenberg stepped back to become our most recent past president, these are losses that can sting.” Schachner went on to say: “This is not the presidency that I signed up for.”
From all reports so it can be considered confirmed, the synagogue did not have security guards or even guard volunteers at the synagogue entrance. While the synagogue had apparently met with the FBI and Homeland Security, and (as noted) improved the exit doors and also practiced evacuation drills, none of that proved enough to avert or minimize the scale of the tragedy.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported that “From January until September 2018, over 50 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Pittsburgh.” Most of the anti-Semitic incidents happened in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where Tree of Life is located. Back in 2000 there was an anti-Semitic murder and the killer also fired his gun into at least two synagogues. Available information suggests there definitely were active threats in the area, especially Squirrel Hill. Given this well-publicized background, it is hard to understand why neither the leadership of Tree of Life (and other synagogues in the area) and the mayor and local police did not take action to avert any incident. Logical steps would have been a heavy increase in police patrols at Jewish houses of worship and Jewish schools, and guards at the entrances. In addition, putting in place a trained Shomrim (“Watcher” force of volunteers) could also have acted to provide early warning of an unfolding threat and also would have been a deterrent to attacks. Properly organized Shomrim work with local law enforcement and follow protocols in responding to potential threats. With Shomrim equipped with radios, synagogues can quickly lock down the premises and protect congregants in an emergency situation.
Synagogues around the world are implementing security, including the United States. Whether in the UK or France, Brussels or Rome security is being given a higher priority. Can anyone forget the courageous volunteer guard in Denmark who lost his life protecting a Bar Mitzvah worship service in Copenhagen? But not everywhere. There is still a lot of resistance to security measures.
There are a host of problems that often paralyze a synagogue or religious school, whether Jewish or not when it comes to security. The most common plea, our congregation must we welcoming, or we cannot have guns in a house of worship must be balanced against the price people are willing to pay if they don’t support strong security. Synagogue and community leaders, as well as Mayors and Police have to advocate and implement tough security measures to protect the lives of all those targeted by hatred.